Democratic decision-making in schools, if it exists at all, is usually limited to small issues such as the organisation of a party or the colour of the classroom walls. Even in schools where the students interview applicants for staff appointments, their role in the final decision is usually only advisory, not participatory. School rules and the curriculum are definitely decided by adults, and any suggestion that it should be otherwise is normally rejected as ridiculous.

All this shows an insulting disregard for the concerns of the children, who, when they are allowed a genuine voice will make responsible and considered decisions. Evidence for this is not limited to independent schools like Summerhill in Suffolk or Sands School in Devon. Highfield Junior School in Plymouth was in a state of chaos when Lorna Farrington was appointed as head teacher in 1994. One of her first actions was to allow the children in each class to make their own rules. Within a year or two the school was calm and purposeful.

Democratic decision-making in schools does not mean adults abandoning their responsibility, it means adults sharing their responsibility with younger people. As long as this sharing is genuine, and group decisions cannot be overturned at the whim of the head teacher or the governors, teachers will find their relationship with their pupils transformed and the atmosphere in the classroom co-operative rather than confrontational.

Some teachers manage to achieve this kind of atmosphere without a framework of democratic decision-making, but democratic decision-making is a powerful way of promoting it.


Voting or consensus

Democratic schools often use simple voting – for or against – to make decisions, rather than any system of consensus. Summerhill has a slightly more complicated version – those in favour, those against and those abstaining, which comes closer to the consensus idea. Elsewhere there is a often fear that requiring consensus means arguing until you reach unanimity, which is a recipe for stalemate.

In fact supporters of consensus decision-making usually support some kind of graded opposition to any proposal, for instance:

In fact supporters of consensus decision-making often accept some kind of graded opposition to any proposal, for instance:

  1. Supportive disagreement: I don't agree, but I'll go along with it and even help to make it happen.
  2. Unsupportive disagreement: I won't interfere, but I won't raise a finger to help you.
  3. The block: I don't agree and I feel so strongly about it that I will continue to attempt to prevent this action (and maybe even leave the group if it goes ahead).

There are probably several reasons why most democratic schools I have visited use simple for or against systems rather than consensus. One is that they may not have heard of consensus systems such as the one I have just described, another is that they confuse consensus with unanimity and therefore reject it, and a third is that the schools are often so small that agreement can be reached without any formal system of either voting or consensus – strong feelings either way are naturally recognised and taken into consideration by the group.

There is a system for running meetings with votes rather than consensus known as Robert’s Rules. It is widely known in the United States and is regarded by some democratic schools with almost religious awe. It is a good-sized book, costing $25, and describes a formal way of running a meeting and voting on proposals which is sometimes seen as the only way of doing so. If I were in a group that was considering introducing Robert’s Rules I would attempt the third consensus option listed above – the block.

More articles by David Gribble